in bluebeard’s castle

wandering brooklyn’s morbid anatomy museum

A white mouse in a Shakespearean doublet welcomes me in. His tunic is neatly ironed, thanks to the long-ago taxidermist who also posed him with a butler’s bearing and a hand-lettered Welcome sign. His glass-eyed gaze points me to the register. For a bargain three-buck student entry fee, I am free to wander wherever I wish in this urban citadel of taxidermy, medical ephemera, and dark contemporary art. Some murderous Bluebeard must have climbed out of a fairytale book to amass this collection of stiffening corpses. But this afternoon he is away from his castle, and like the girl-bride he keeps locked safe inside, I am left alone to tiptoe from chamber to chamber.

To reach the exhibits, I climb a flight of stairs as innocuous as those in my mother’s office building. The stairway is a liminal space, a conduit of the ordinary, which spits me out into the gleefully freakish world of the Morbid Anatomy Museum.

Across the room stands a cabinet painted 50’s mint green. The glass door has been left oh-so-casually open. Inside are jars of pickled snake and fetal badger. Grumpy twin bats are crammed in a vial much too small. An unhatched bird huddles in her new glass egg, her downy coat mussed as if caught in a breeze. That fetal plumage is so thick and sticky it seems more like fur than feathers. This must be what the inside of Snape’s private potions closet is like.

I spy with my little eye: a child-sized coffin; a two-headed duckling; a cabinet full of skulls; dental tools and a syringe; a pair of avian legs crusty enough to have come from the dinosaur age; gap toothed dentures—a bit ironic; blue-eyed baby Jesus wearing a tiara in a glass box.

The gallerist closes the minty cabinet door but she doesn’t latch it. Rapturous taxidermied rodents swoon in the corners, a weasel here, a mink there. Taxidermied owls glare down from their pedestals, keeping one eye on the motionless stuffed mice. A display board of black velvet holds the pearly treasure of half the Tooth Fairy’s baby tooth collection. But where did the other half go?

I step backwards and feel my elbow send something toppling. I freeze—wait for the shatter-crunch. But when I turn around I see that it’s just a plastic religious figurine that I’ve knocked to the floor. He’s unharmed. Pretending no one has noticed the racket I’ve made in the funeral-parlor silence of the exhibition room, I place the figurine back on the cabinet, between the red candle and the yellow bird. But the gallerist is already sweeping towards me. I brace myself for a scolding. Will she send me to the dungeons for tea with the Iron Maiden?

“Oh, it’s just a saint,” she says. Her voice wrings out the irony.

In the next room is a special exhibit—”Opus Hypnagogia: Sacred Spaces of the Visionary and Vernacular”—featuring contemporary and 19th century works that explore a hallucinatory realm where dreams invade reality. In a glass case rests the ideal letter opener for all your coven mail: an ivory blade carved with the skull and pentacle. Nearby, an accordion book of black paper yawns across an entire case, the pages inscribed with hulking animal figures and a silvery script that looks half-Elvish. Keeping watch by the door is a devil forged from black bronze. He has three horns and is absorbed in placing a party hat (or is it a dunce cap?) on a toffee-colored cat who smiles at him with kiss-me blue eyes.

I return to the ground floor where the café and cash register are, and then descend another flight of stairs. I don’t ask permission. Who do I think I am? Bluebeard’s girl bride? At the bottom of the stairs I find myself in a dungeon full of bottled and jarred dead things from every family in the animal kingdom. The cellar smells of nail polish remover and an adrenaline rush. Every available surface holds plastic Tupperware containers of beetles drying on paper towels: beetles black as lumps of Christmas coal, beetles iridescent as raindrops on a leaf.

In the center of the room, six people sit at a table sticking pins in insects—a taxidermy workshop or a voodoo ritual? Two taxidermied raccoons and a beaver watch from the front of the subterranean classroom.

But unlike Bluebeard’s bride, I am free to leave the castle when all of that preserved flesh presses too heavily around me. Outside, October sunshine showers off the shadows that still cling to my skin.

On the subway I read the tale of another girl who was too curious about dead things.

“She liked to pick a bud that was fat and ready to open, green-lipped and hairy. Then with her fingers she would prise the petal-case apart, and extract the red, crumpled silk—slightly damp, she thought—and spread it out in the sunlight. She knew in her heart that she should not do this. She was cutting a life short, interrupting a natural unfolding for the pleasure of satisfied curiosity and the glimpse of the secret, scarlet, creased and frilly flower flesh.”—A.S. Byatt, Ragnarok

I read too many happy endings and eat too many sweets; sometimes I need something as bitter as formaldehyde to shock me into sensitivity. After my wander through Death’s storage chambers, I feel the edges of everything more keenly.